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Three graphic novels to read to get through this election

- November 4, 2016
Transmetropolitan (Courtesy of DC/Vertigo)

With the election only a few days away, you’ve already read every sage bit of political science on the Monkey Cage and scanned Nate Silver five hundred and thirty-eight times in the last hour. How about instead reading some classic graphic novels that offer extraordinarily relevant insights into the insanity of the 2016 presidential campaign? Here are three of my favorites.

Cerebus: High Society,” by Dave Sim

“High Society” is the second book in what would become an epic 300-issue series. In Sim’s early political masterpiece, the still-young Cerebus the Aardvark arrives in the city-state of Iest, where he is groomed for political power by the mysterious, uber-competent Lady Astoria. She guides the rough-edged aardvark through the byzantine politics of Iest. In short order, Cerebus wins and loses the position of “Ranking Diplomatic Representative” of Palnu, the economic powerhouse led by his former employer, the Groucho Marx-inspired Lord Julius.

Astoria then puts Cerebus forward as a candidate for prime minister as a populist nationalist candidate promising to stand up to Palnu. Confident that Iestan voters understand their complete and total economic dependence on Palnu, Julius responds by fielding a goat. (Not a talking goat character, a real goat.) In an all too familiar demonstration of the power of partisanship, the goat, despite being a goat, immediately wins the support of half the electorate. After a hilariously chaotic campaign, Cerebus ultimately becomes prime minister by a single vote, after the Iestan equivalent of a ballot recount — he has to travel up north and track down the local official who had refused to register a vote out of disdain for elections.

That victory has consequences. Cerebus is himself very much a Trump-like figure. If anyone in the series resembles Clinton, it is the hyper-competent and ruthlessly pragmatic Astoria. The goat is, well, a goat. Cerebus is, at this point of the series, a shrewd, hypermasculine character obsessed with power for its own sake and utterly uninterested in policy — a running joke is that he falls asleep during cabinet meetings and policy debates. As soon as he becomes prime minister, Cerebus disbands the legislature (Headlines: “Don’t say we didn’t warn you; Goat organizes resistance movement”) and announces an “amnesty program” (“Turn in all traitors or be executed yourself; Goat arrested on morals charge.”) He sells off the crown jewels to hire a mercenary army, then launches a series of disastrous wars that bankrupt the city-state and ultimately lead to its conquest.

The self-defeating nature of an unquenchable thirst for power — whether by Cerebus, Astoria or anyone — is a central theme of Sim’s overarching 300-issue story. It’s worth reading this weekend (download an authorized, free digital version here) for the manic fun of a political campaign — that is thankfully fictional — and for reflecting on the sobering consequences of populist power gone wrong. 

Transmetropolitan,” by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

The bald, tattooed and borderline insane journalist Spider Jerusalem will always be one of Warren Ellis’s greatest creations. Set in a technopunk, dystopian future, “Transmetropolitan’s” overarching story unfolds over 10 collections in which Jerusalem chronicles and ultimately impacts the rise and fall of two monstrous politicians. Because of its determined lunacy, it is perhaps one of the few literary portrayals of politics that can stand up to the 2016 election.

The first half of the series focuses on “the Beast,” the sitting president. Jerusalem had originally come to fame writing about the campaign that brought the Beast to power; his last column before disappearing into the mountains for four years was the word “f‑‑‑” repeated 8,000 times. The Nixonesque Beast is portrayed as an utterly cynical political brute who will use any means necessary to hold on to power, including a covert massacre of his home city. “If the president of the United States does it, it can’t be a crime,” he tells Jerusalem during a candid interview.

The Beast is soon overshadowed by his opponent Gary Callahan, who wins first his party’s nomination and then the presidency. Callahan, whom Jerusalem dubbed “the Smiler,” initially seems like a normal person but ultimately proves even more monstrous. He specializes in orchestrating the deaths of loved ones to distract attention from his political scandals. Over the last half of the book, President Callahan and Jerusalem go to war. What follows is both a frightening portrayal of an amoral lunatic wielding the power of the state, and a remarkably optimistic portrayal of the power of a crusading press to break through the lies and deceptions of that state.

I won’t spoil the ending, but I can say that journalists who have spent the last year trying to dig out the truth and bring it to the public in this absurdist election cycle might find unlikely inspiration in Spider Jerusalem. Maybe, despite all the chaos and insanity, all that reporting really can make a difference.

DMZ,” by Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli.

Wood’s 72-issue series traces the harrowing adventures of Matty Roth, a photojournalist dropped in Manhattan, the De-Militarized Zone of warring sides in the second American civil war. The story portrays the warlords who dominate Manhattan’s DMZ, the ordinary citizens who struggle to survive, and the absolute amorality and cynicism of the leadership of both sides of the civil war. Roth’s photojournalism, like Jerusalem’s, ultimately helps to break through the fog of official disinformation about the war.

What is most relevant about Wood’s narrative, which he began writing in 2005, is his frighteningly matter-of-fact account of how a rural insurgency quickly takes hold and divides the country. DMZ tracks an uprising of secessionists called “The Free States of America” (FSA — seriously!), who declare a government in Helena, Mont. As it spread rapidly across the country, Roth recalls, “no one could grasp how it could happen… so many people were in denial. They laughed at the idea of this redneck army in pickup trucks. But the laughing didn’t last long.” The National Guard dissolves as many of its members took off their uniforms or defected to the insurgency.

As the FSA spreads East, it convinces many rural and small town Americans to join the uprising. When the U.S. military finally confronts the insurgency in Pennsylvania, pilots refuse to use air power against its own people and the FSA wins. The insurgency is halted in New York, which becomes the titular DMZ dividing the USA and the FSA. Five years later, the FSA has proven unable to conquer major cities but the U.S. government is still bogged down fighting “the same asymmetrical insurgent warfare that bogged down the U.S. military overseas.” At one point late in the story, a U.S. soldier stationed in Yemen is shown on television complaining that he wished the troops could return to defend the homeland.

DMZ will make for disturbing reading today for those who look at armed militias organizing to monitor polls and fear that civil war and insurgency really can happen here. It may also serve as a cautionary tale for cynical politicians and media personalities playing with insurgent fire. Again, I won’t spoil the ending, but the entire series makes for a grimly captivating read about an uncomfortably relevant potential American dystopia.

“High Society,” “Transmetropolitan” and “DMZ” are all brilliantly written and illustrated productions. They are far more fun, much richer and less didactic than these bare bones descriptions allow (and, fair warning, in the case of “Transmetropolitan” at least, extremely NSFW). If you need to distract yourself from refreshing your news feed for the 10th time in the last hour, give Dave Sim, Warren Ellis and Brian Wood a try.